President taps internal medicine physician with government experience.
An internal medicine physician has been named to take the helm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mandy Cohen, MD, MPH, was announced as the new CDC director to succeed Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, who will step down at the end of this month. Cohen’s name has been suggested in news media reports for several weeks and the White House announced President Joe Biden’s intent on June 16.
“Dr. Cohen is one of the nation’s top physicians and health leaders with experience leading large and complex organizations, and a proven track-record protecting Americans’ health and safety,” the president said in a statement. “Dr. Cohen has been recognized by leaders from both parties for her ability find common ground and put complex policy into action. I look forward to working with Dr. Cohen as she leads our nation’s finest scientists and public health experts with integrity and transparency.”
Cohen currently is executive vice president of Aledade and CEO of Aledade Care Solutions, where she started in March. Aledade has more than 1,000 primary care practices in its network of accountable care organizations, and Cohen mentioned primary care specifically when her position was announced.
“Aledade’s support for primary care practices to deliver integrated, whole-person care in value-based payment arrangements is good for practices, payers, patients, communities and society. Importantly, it’s the kind of care I want for my family,” Cohen said in statement earlier this year. “As part of the Aledade leadership team, I look forward to ensuring primary care practices have the resources they need to keep their patients and communities healthy.”
From January 2017 to the end of 2021, Cohen was secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). That agency has 17,000 employees and an annual budget of $20 billion overseeing various health and social service functions in that state.
“Secretary Cohen and her team are focused on responding to and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, building a robust, efficient Medicaid program, improving early childhood health, safety and education, combatting the opioid crisis, and ensuring equitable access to health resources,” said her profile on the NCDHHS website.
Cohen led the state’s COVID-19 response team, including oversight of hospital surges, testing, contact tracing, and supply of personal protective equipment.
That work led to an American Medical Association Award for Outstanding Government Service in March 2022.
“A credible and innovative leader, Dr. Cohen has earned high marks during an incredibly trying time for her clear communication and collaborative style,” AMA Board Chair Bobby Mukkamala, MD, said in a statement at the time. “When physicians and frontline health care workers needed help with PPE, Dr. Cohen was there. And when they needed straightforward guidance and information about public health, Dr. Cohen was there.”
On a national scale, Walensky and the CDC have faced criticism for various elements of handling the COVID-19 pandemic. The national response and Cohen’s work prompted a statement by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee.
“The next CDC Director will play a critical role in helping restore public trust in our government health agencies,” Rodgers’ statement said. “I have concerns about Dr. Cohen’s past decisions as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, including to keep schools and businesses closed during the pandemic.
“Unless she immediately shows she has taken to heart the right lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and begins to restore trust in the CDC, this appointment will unfortunately just be a continuation of the current failed leadership,” Rodgers said. “She must be candid about the CDC’s past failures and commit to being transparent and accountable to the American people. The Energy and Commerce Committee is committed to bringing much-needed reform to the CDC. I hope Dr. Cohen chooses to work constructively with us throughout this process.”
Cohen’s state profile listed her “buying health” agenda that focuses on social drivers of health, also called social determinants of health (SDOH). In her tenure, North Carolina implemented NCCARE360, a first-of-a-kind electronic network to connect those in need with community resources. Physicians, other clinicians, and policy makers are continuing a national discussion on how health care can assist patients dealing with various social drivers of health such as safe housing, transportation, and poverty.
Before her work in North Carolina, Cohen served as chief operating officer and chief of staff at the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. In 2021 it was announced she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine.
Cohen received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and her medical degree from the Yale School of Medicine. She has a master’s degree in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Cohen trained in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, where new Aledade board member David Blumenthal, MD, MPP, served as her attending physician when Cohen was an intern on the hospital’s medical inpatient service.
“Now that is the way to get to know a young physician,” Blumenthal wrote in a June 21 essay about his decision to join Aledade’s board. “Her career has been and continues to be extraordinary, and I know she will serve the nation well as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
A primary care physician, Blumenthal has served as national coordinator for health information technology and as president of the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund.
The CDC director can take office without Senate confirmation. That will change in January 2025, when a new requirement for Senate confirmation takes effect, as signed into law under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023.
Rodgers’ statement noted House Subcommittee on Health Chairman Brett Guthrie, R-Kentucky, has introduced legislation that would accelerate the requirement for Senate confirmation. If passed, the legislation would retroactively require Senate confirmation for any director appointed after June 1, 2023. Any appointed director would serve in an acting capacity until confirmed.